Aleksandr Rodchenko was a Russian Constructivist painter, graphic designer, and photographer. Rochenko was born on December 5, 1891 in St. Petersburg. His design work was versatile as he worked with various types of design from furniture and architecture to clothing design. Within his graphic work he designed posters, film captions, and book covers. His later work consists of experimentation with photography and capturing different radical angles, leaving the traditional static compositions behind. Rodchenko was trained in painting and started his career in painting as he graduated from Kazan Art School in 1911. Influenced by the futurists and is known to have been one of the founders of Constructivism, he left painting because of its decorative aspect and subjectivity. He was more interested in carrying on a universal language and believed that art should serve a cause. In these harsh terms he completely discarded painting, saying “Down with art if it is an escape route from a meaningless life! Not for art that reproduces the external world, prettifying it with a decorative mantle, but for a constructive art that reflects our way of life.” (The Future is our only Goal) This quote is embedded in my mind as I think of Rodchenko’s line of work and how he was against the painterly aesthetic but managed to undertake painting once again in his last years of his career. A medium that he left forgotten throughout his work describes both the start and end of his career.
The Constructivist movement relating to Rodchenko’s work was about art used as a political and social voice that was “not just in providing an escape from the grim routine of daily life.” (The Future is our only Goal) The Constructivists were struggling against traditional and decorative art with an intention to create new utilitarian forms. Constructivists concentrated on analyzing work objectively and shifting the new importance of the outer aesthetic of a form to the functional aspect of a structure. There was an emphasis on the use of materials and how they could be manipulated to create form. Rodchenko and his wife, Varvara Stephanova, published a Manifesto on Productivism, in which they declared, “Down with art, long live technical science.” (The Future is our only Goal) Productivism went against the “social uselessness” of art and proclaimed that art should serve a purpose. Painting and sculpture was accepted as a study or draft, used as research during the process of the final product. Rodchenko and Stephanova collaborated throughout their career and both shared a common style. “Constructive life is the art of the future. Art that is useless to life has no place except in the museum of antiquities. It is time for art to become an organic constituent of life” (The future is our only Goal)
In the 1916 Magazin Exhibition in Moscow, Aleksandr Rodchenko exhibited alongside Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich. Malevich’s Suprematism and Tatlin’s Constructivist work influenced Rodchenko’s later work. Suprematist works were composed of geometric shapes, most commonly circles and squares. Naturalistic forms were abstracted into geometric objects. Rochenko was then determined to create a more objective and less personal form of art that steered away from a free-hand aesthetic to the use of geometric elements. He followed Tatlin’s aesthetic qualities of engineering and construction as well as the rational use of materials.
In 1921, Rodchenko set his transition from painting with the triptych, Pure Colors: Red, Yellow, and Blue. The work was composed of three canvases each painted solidly with a different primary color. It was displayed in the 5X5=25 Exhibition in Moscow as the first monochromatic painting. This work was considered to be “pure” as it encompassed the primary colors as the basic forms and foundation of color. Rodchenko emphasized that painting is made up of line and color. His geometric compositions in painting demonstrated his value in rendering smooth planes with mathematically accurate detail. Rochenko began thinking of the artist as an inventor, an idea can describe his transition into design.
His wife Varvara Stepanova influenced his transition to the applied arts. They began to design posters for businesses and propaganda. Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote the slogans and texts for these designs. They both worked together in publicizing new political and artistic ideas in advertising while introducing the product. The Russian Revolution (1917) caused hope and presented an opportunity to transform the nation. “The utopian imagination- a means to envision new possibilities for human life-was particularly strong at the time of the Russian Revolution.” (The Struggle for Utopia) Rodchenko believed that the artist had the capability to create work that could inspire social change and educate the masses.
In 1924, after using photography of other artists for his work, Aleksandr Rodchenko decided to take up photography himself. Photography was a new medium separate from the conventions and pictorial compositions of painting. The camera was an industrially made machine and the process of developing film consisted of calculated operations such as exposure to different chemicals. Interested in photography as documentation, Rodchenko experimented with shooting his subject at odd angles. Rodchenko wrote, “One has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same key-hole again and again.” (Aleksandr Rodchenko) He believed that traditional forms of photography distanced the viewer from their subjects. As Christopher Crouch points out “Rodchenko was arguing for an extension of the way in which photography defined reality.” (Modernism, Design, and Architecture) Rodchenko’s Girl with Leica depicts his interest in line. The shadow in this photograph creates a linear grid, which was common in his work. He integrated elements such as stairs, buildings, and overhead wires that created constructivist linear structures. This is not a straightforward picture; the camera manipulates the composition. The subject does not control the photograph, the camera does. There is a definite contrast between light and dark, which was also one of Rochenko’s approaches towards photography. “In order to educate man to a new longing, everyday familiar objects must be shown to him with totally unexpected perspectives and in unexpected situations. New objects should be depicted from different sides in order to provide a complete impression of the object.” (Aleksandr Rodchenko:Photography)
In question of what a Russian Constructivist would do if given the task to redesign a Restaurant Menu, Aleksandr Rodchenko would seize the opportunity to include a political message. My approach concentrates mainly on the formal qualities of his work and incorporated non-decorative elements. In redesigning the Pluckers restaurant menu, I decided on using some of Rodchenko’s distinguishable characteristics of his work. I decided to incorporate the uniformity produced by the placement of shapes and how those shapes determine the position of the text and image in the composition. The shapes work together to hold both text and image in place. I also adopted Rodchenko’s camera angle techniques, which established a new way of seeing things. I also wanted to keep the humorous and hip display of the original Pluckers menu. For the front cover text I decided on replicating the typeface from the cover for Soiree of the Book (1924) because I felt it encompassed his typography work. The cover did not include all of the letters I needed to spell Pluckers, however, I brought the characters into illustrator and used them to create the extra letters. I also edited the content of the menu and included the most popular items and what the restaurant is famous for, wings. For the cover, I chose to photograph the Plucker’s sign, located outside of one of the Plucker’s restaurants, at an angle so that word “wings” would appear along with the arrows pointing towards Pluckers. I used the sign to reveal what the restaurant serves as well as to describe the scenery inside. The restaurant is filled with television screens that are always showing sports and neon lights. I chose to depict this by emphasizing the neon lights in the sign and making the other parts black and white. For the entire menu, I decided to stay with a color palette consisting of red, yellow, and black. This color combination that was inspired by Rodchenko’s Pure Colors painting, which conveniently happened to be the same for the Pluckers logo. For the inside of the menu I chose to communicate three aspects of the restaurant, its popularity amongst UT students especially sports fans, its fun and wacky environment, and their well known wings.
Aleksandr Rodchenko received much criticism for his early painting and radical photography technique, and was pronounced a formalist. With much criticism he was excluded and exiled, and spent the rest of his life in his studio drawing and painting. Rodchenko wrote, “I’m absolutely unneeded, whether I work or not, whether I live or not. I’m already as good as dead, and I’m the only who cares that I’m alive. I’m an invisible man.” (Aleksandr Rochenko) He removed Constructivist paintings, posters, and photographs and replaced them with his circus paintings and works of both his wife and daughter. His painting, Romance: clown with dog, is in no means representative of Rochenko’s emotional state. It is composed of color and stroke, opposite of his earlier renderings of defined lines and solid use of color. The figure is not as geometric and is a direct representation of a circus performer. The subject has not been deconstructed to its pure form but it is a direct depiction. This painting is representative of Rodchenko’s personality, incredibly contradictory to Constructivist ideology. Rodchenko’s paintings were non-realistic renderings, but real subjects that have been transformed by his fantasy and imagination. They are non-objective compositions that never left his studio because of their controversial content.
There is a disconnect between Aleksandr Rodchenko's painting and design work. His photographs are accounts of his more expressive work because of his experimentation with working with angles and attempting to define his subject. His photography serves as a bridge that connects and defines his work. His Constructivist work adheres to his want for change while conforming to the norm at the time. His exile caused him to get back into painting to create non-practical compositions. This was Aleksandr Rochenko’s chance to work for only himself in his studio with no confines and restrictions of the Stalinist nation.
Lemoine, Serge. Alexander Rodchenko: Photography. 1st ed. Paris: Centre National De La Photographie, 1987. 1-70.
Noever, Peter, ed. The Future is Our Only Goal. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991. 1-260.
Elliott, David, Lord Gowrie, and Alexander Lavrentiev. Alexander Rodchenko 1914-1920. London: Sotheby's LTD., 1991. 1-250.
Quilici, Vieri, ed. Rodchenko: the Complete Work. Cambridge: MIT P, 1987. 1-303.
Margolin, Victor. The Struggle for Utopia: University of Chicago Press. 1997. 1-253.